“If it wasn’t for the park, my eight-year old son wouldn’t have had the chance to interact with other children from outside our community,” said Ruth, my neighbour and running buddy, who is ultra-orthodox and whose son attends a Jewish boys school. I first met Ruth in a local community swimming pool when both our children were attending the same swimming lesson. Perhaps our shared imagined and material histories – interwoven and intricate, distant and contemporary, contested and unresolved – and geographies were the catalyst for a conversation to begin. The park, the community garden, and the towpath were those open, democratic, neutral, inclusive and inviting places that allowed for a friendship to develop.
It was also in the modest sandpit in the park that my children and myself witnessed the phenomenal performance of ten-year old Malachi and his eight-year old brother who were free-styling forward and backward acrobatic flips. They were inspirational. Totally self-taught, and using two little wooden trampolines in the sandpit, they inspired my seven year-old son, Omar, who started to practice the moves despite the initial inhibition he felt. The simple structure in the park and his bed mattress at home made the forward flip possible. The brief encounter in the park had been more influential than the many times I tried to convince him to take up gymnastics to no avail.
Growing up in a country where racial hierarchy is the norm and the law, where coloniality, ethnic and cultural absolutism, and domination are the nomos of the land, where the education system is mostly segregated and playgrounds can generate collective anxieties and righteous demands to exclude those who do not belong, moving to live in London and in Hackney in particular with its enriching, cosmopolitan urban culture, generous parks, nurturing adventure playgrounds and places of play, has been a restorative, rectifying, hopeful experience.
Inspired by Paul Gilroy’s writing on conviviality (2004:xi), that is “the ability to live with alterity without becoming anxious, fearful or violent…the processes of cohabitation and interaction that made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities elsewhere,” and propelled by a sense of urgency and political and moral commitment, my photographic practice became the vehicle and lens through which I visualise and celebrate the invaluable opportunities that inclusive, accessible, democratic public space and places of play create. Lacking professional training in photography did not act as a hinderance. My commitment to bringing into visibility aspects of everyday life that are beyond the headlines and recognising the positive possibilities (Gilroy 2006:39) ,the gripping and transformative power these ordinary encounters had on my were more urgent and more valuable than having concerns about the aesthetics of image making and framing.
Hackney Playbus: building community through play
Hackney Playbus is one such example. Set up in 1972 to provide free play and fun activities to pre-school children from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds and offer support to their families, the Playbus, a double-decker converted bus, was conceived by a small group of visionary, community-oriented ‘revolutionaries’ committed to social justice and social equality. It was envisaged by its founders as having agency and transforming properties in its own right. It was a Playbus with a mission. “A quiet revolution was taking place in pre-school provision. In the 1970s, especially in Hackney, there was very little pre-school provision for children… The idea was to act as a catalyst for new playgroups to emerge and to provide a valuable service,” recounted Anthony Kendall, one of its co-founders, in an interview with A Hackney Autobiography project.
Nearly 50 years on, and despite the proliferation of free playgroups and the shift in demographics, the Playbus still operates in the heart of the community and moves around disadvantaged estates in Hackney. Its creative, learning, and socialising opportunities attract both middle and working class families. “What I love about the Playbus is that it’s free, outdoors, and is for both parent and child. I’ve made invaluable friendships through the Playbus,” one of the mothers told me. “It’s a community for me. Before and after giving birth to my second child, I felt that everyone was supportive,” said another woman. For Grace, a migrant mother of two who lives with her mother-in-law in a one-bedroom council flat, the Playbus is a breathing space for her and the children. “I have two children and we live in the living room of my mother-in-law’s. It’s a one-bed room flat. We have no garden and not many toys. I also do not have the same toys and activities they offer here…”
The Playbus is indeed the catalyst and agent which brings in/and builds community. It provides a safe, nurturing environment for children to socialise, explore, develop, and be imaginative. It’s an example of everything convivial, inclusive, dignified and creative about community, public space, our streets and our cities.
A School in Hackney
When my son started primary school I was amazed at how ethnically and culturally diverse the school is considering its small size and small catchment area. What was equally amazing, not surprising though, is how beautifully and how quickly the children blended, formed friendships, and enjoyed each other’s company. The “apparent” differences made and make no difference to them. They were not and are not a divisive factor.
In the context of growing ultra-nationalism, populism and neo-fascism in which racism, scaremongering and othering corrupt and erode our shared humanity and sense of solidarity, and while legacies of colonialism still live, state schools with their democratic, catchment-area policies, offer hope.
Seeking “shards of hope, the fragments of hope in the world” is a part of our responsibility, Gilroy asserts (2019:184). In the same spirit, in his article Hope’s Work, Les Back (2020) argues for a hopeful scholarship that is attentive to the social world, especially in troubled times. Hope as an open empirical question and a method of creating knowledge that portrays and documents hopeful possibilities, “an inventory of those moments of repair that suture damage, where hate gives way to love, convivial coexistence bridges division and exclusion, and where “islands of hope” emerge from within the midst of despair” (2020:16). It is these schools of thought that I see my visual practice engaging with and committed to. Those geographies of hope that are restorative, transformative and promising.
Manal Massalha is an urban ethnographer and documentary photographer working on questions of urban conviviality, urban health, infrastructure, housing inequalities and their intersection with gender, race, class, and (post)coloniality. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics. She was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban and Community Research, Goldsmiths, University of London. Her work can be found at: manalmassalha.com
Title inspired by Les Back’s 2019 Antipode RGS-IBG Annual International Lecture on the themes of “geographies of trouble” and “geographies of hope.”
Some names have been changed to offer anonymity.
Gilroy P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? Abingdon: Routledge.
Gilroy P. (2006), Multiculture in times of war: an inaugural lecture given at the London school of economics, Critical quarterly, 48 (4), 27–45.
 The school project does offer hope but does not mean that divisions along class, race and ethnicity are not maintained. I see that at the school gate and birthday parties in particular.
Gilroy, P., Sandset, T., Bangstad, S. & Ringen Høibjerg, G. (2019), A diagnosis of contemporary forms of racism, race and nationalism: a conversation with Professor Paul Gilroy, Cultural Studies, 33:2, 173-197.
Back, L. (2020), Hope’s Work, Antipode, pp. 1-18.